The South American battle

 

Coming off the back of Williams' worst ever season in Formula 1 in 2011, the team needed changes and alterations from top to bottom. A virtually brand new technical team was assembled during the latter part of 2011 and over the winter to help create a new environment with new direction and emphasis. In all honesty the team had been in decline for several years, and it probably took what happened last season for things to actually get done.

After it was announced that Pastor Maldonado would be staying on for the 2012 season, it was down to three candidates to fight for the remaining seat. Rubens Barrichello always appeared to be the least likely to stay on with age and money (sponsorship) the two main stumbling blocks. The battle went down to Bruno Senna following his release from Lotus Renault and Adrian Sutil who had also been released from his 2011 team, Force India. Sutil's impending court case was a big put off for a team looking to re-establish themselves in the paddock and although the German had shown quick pace from time to time and improved consistently over the past 2 seasons, there were still uncertainties about whether he truly had the speed to compete at the top.

Williams decided to go with Bruno Senna and reunite the Senna name with the team that his late, great Uncle drove for. Senna's Formula 1 career to date had been very stop-start. A difficult first season with HRT in 2010 left him without a race drive for the start of the 2011 season. When Nick Heidfeld was replaced half way through the season, Senna found himself back in a race seat in a car significantly more competitive than the HRT he'd previously raced. Senna scored points in only his second race with the team at Monza, quite impressive considering he'd been drafted in half way through a season and had to get up to speed quickly. Unfortunately that was as good as it got for Senna as the car became less and less competitive as the season went on. He'd finish the season with only 2 points and down in 18th in the championship. To be fair, in the races against Petrov the pair had been fairly equal and is probably a reason why both were dropped by the team at the end of the season to be replaced by Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean.

This left Williams entering the 2012 with 2 drivers who between them had scored 3 points in two and a half years. That doesn't quite tell the whole story though as the HRT and Williams were uncompetitive and the Lotus Renault had essentially stopped being developed by the time Senna entered. Still, it didn't look great to many. As you may know though, I'm a big fan of Pastor Maldonado and think he's a great driver with great speed and potential. I'm less convinced about Bruno Senna mind.

From testing it looked like Williams did have a quick car and although that doesn't often matter much when it comes to the first race, the speed showed throughout February and March translated to the track in Melbourne. Maldonado crashed with a lap or two to go from what would have been a career best finish and would have seen Williams score more points from one haul than they did in 19 race meetings last year. It didn't take long though for Williams to get those points, with Senna achieving a 6th place finish in Malaysia, followed up by a 7th and 8th for Senna and Maldonado respectively in China. A not such good race in Bahrain saw both cars retire, but the speed in the car was definitely there. Had it not been for Maldonado's crash in Melbourne, the team would have accumulated 26 points from the opening four rounds, more than six times the total they'd achieved in the whole of the 2011 season.

Then we move on to Catalunya. My favourite race in Formula 1 since Jenson Button won the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix. It was simply fantastic and went some way to proving what an excellent driver the Venezuelan is. He and the team outraced and outpaced the vastly more experienced Fernando Alonso to take his first win in Formula 1 and the team's first since Juan Pablo Montoya at the Brazilian Grand Prix back in 2004. This race certainly put Maldonado on the world map. The whole race he was quick, and was even able to successfully manage and at times increase and decrease his advantage over Alonso when asked to, something you'd normally only expect an Alonso type character to be able to do. I was so happy to see both him and the team win this race. They've given so much to Formula 1 and it goes to show what hard work can do. A complete reshuffle in the technical department had brought its rewards and in spectacular fashion.

Something else that the win did though was put huge pressure on Senna. Could he now step up to the plate? His name has probably been as much of a help as it has been a hindrance throughout his motor racing career, with many expecting big things from him. His year and a half in Formula 1 so far hadn't shown much promise, but now in a more competitive car could he show what he's made of? Malaysia and China were both very encouraging results and performances, but a sixth and seventh isn't going to get him too far. Consistency and steady improvements up the field are what are needed for Senna this season. An untidy incident with Schumacher saw the pair retire from the Spanish race, but it was clear from what we saw that on the day Senna just didn't have anywhere near the pace in qualifying or the race to even be close to his team mate.

Maldonado was on for a second podium of the season until he collided with Lewis Hamilton close to the end. It was another race that in my eyes anyway, confirmed that Maldonado has the beating of Senna so far. Although Senna has achieved more points scoring finishes this season compared to Maldonado (4-2), it's been the Venezuelan who has shown the far superior pace. Yes, he's a little erratic and at times clumsy, but he clearly has the pace to run at or near the front (as shown at Barcelona and Valencia). Senna too has a habit for getting involved in incidents (Schumacher and the incident with Kobayashi at Valencia spring to mind, in which he was quite rightly penalised for), but hasn't shown anywhere near the same pace required to be a top driver. Senna appears to be a really nice bloke, always happy to talk to the press and answer anything that's fired at him. But nice doesn't always get you to the top. There needs to be some aggression and toughness in there, which to me he hasn't shown anywhere near as much as his team mate. Maldonado has developed tremendously over the winter and throughout the early part of this season. He's very good at defending his position, firm but fair you could say, and although he has a tendency to be a little too impatient and aggressive from time to time (Valencia) he has shown that he can overtake when he has to and do it fairly and cleanly (Alonso at Barcelona).

If I was Senna I'd be a little worried. Yes, we've only had 8 races, but it's not long until the rumours for drives next season start up again and the only driver you can really be compared against is your team mate. To me, Maldonado is definitely a step or two ahead of Senna at the moment. That doesn't mean Senna can't pull it back, but it'll be difficult. I can only see Maldonado getting better as the season goes on. Think about how much he's improved already and he's shown that the win in Barcelona wasn't a fluke (although he didn't get the finish to prove it, the pace was there). Senna is undoubtedly a good driver, but is he good enough for Formula 1? I don't know. I hope he has a great second half to the 2012 season and proves he is in fact a great drive who deserves to be in the paddock on pace and not because of his name. Some of you may not agree with what I've said and I'd welcome your thoughts on the matter. The opening 8 races have shown to me and hopefully the fans and paddock that keeping Maldonado on for a second season was indeed a great decision by the Williams management. For me he's certainly showed how good he is and has outperformed his team mate fairly convincingly so far. Time for Senna to step up and show what he's made of? Yes. Starting at the British Grand Prix this weekend? Let's hope so.

Top Drivers

 
Driver Points
Hamilton 252
Rosberg 211
Vettel 203
Raikkonen 107
Bottas 101
Massa 97
 

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